The Ideological Function of the God-Concept in Faulkner's Light in August

By Lackey, Michael | The Faulkner Journal, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview
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The Ideological Function of the God-Concept in Faulkner's Light in August

Lackey, Michael, The Faulkner Journal


God and the word of God have been used to perpetuate the wicked idea of human inferiority.

J. Saunders Redding, On Being Negro in America (147)

There has been a remarkable shift in the culturally marginalized person's treatment of God and religion from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the twentieth century.1 Writers as varied as Samson Occom, Olaudah Equiano, William Apess, Harriet Jacobs, and Frederick Douglass consistently fault Christians for mistreating non-whites. And yet, as believers, these writers invariably invoke a discourse of hypocrisy in order to spare the Faith. Their argument runs like this: True Christianity would never sanction abuse. But Christians consistently abuse Native Americans and people of African descent. Therefore, these Christians are not true Believers. Such an argument leaves intact the purity of true religion by criticizing only the erring practitioners of the Faith.2

Because writers like Ludwig Feuerbach, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud conceive of knowledge not as an ontologically pre-given, mind-independent reality, but as psychosemiotic construction, a psychological projection that assumes a provisional form in and through a semiotic sign, they do not recognize the existence of a pure spiritual ideal like true religion or true Christianity. For these writers, religion is nothing more than an all-too-human-constructed institution that reflects the limitations and biases of the human. Moreover, as a cultural form, there is something intrinsic to the God-mentality that makes religious folks and institutions extremely destructive and dangerous. To put this in the words of Feuerbach: "In faith there lies a pernicious principle" (376).3 Nietzsche develops this idea further, claiming that "all religions are at the deepest level systems of cruelties" (61 ).4 Freud incorporates the ideas of both Feuerbach and Nietzsche into his work by arguing that "cruelty and intolerance towards those who do not belong to" the chosen faith "are natural to every religion" (Group 39).5

Beginning in the early- and mid-twentieth century, African American writers started to reject the distinction between perversions of Christianity and "Christianity proper," and not surprisingly, many prominent writers, like Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and J. Saunders Redding, renounced Christianity and even the God-concept. For instance, Hurston notes in Dust Tracks on a Road that the God-concept "is a creature of" our "own minds" (207), and since humans are governed "by the selfish hand" (244), the gods and religions that they create will be equally twisted and selfish. As evidence to support this claim, she encourages her reader to turn to the Bible, which uses a Chosen People philosophy to sanction slaughters and even genocide (244-45). In Black Boy, after Wright experiences the wrath of his family's church for resisting the community's faith, he draws a bitter conclusion about religion: "Wherever I found religion in my life I found strife, the attempt of one individual or group to rule another in the name of God. The naked will to power seemed always to walk in the wake of a hymn" (136). The most important critic of the God-concept for the purposes of this essay is Redding, who claims in his work On Being Negro in America that the principal function of "God and the word of God" has been "to perpetuate the wicked idea of human inferiority" (147). Unlike eighteenth- and nineteenth-century critics, who fault practitioners of the Faith, these writers trace the horrors of religion back to the psychology of belief. The idea of a true faith or religion independent of the one wielded by the erring practitioners is, for these writers, simply incoherent.

A casual glance at the way the God-concept makes possible and even probable such violations of culturally designated inferiors explains why so many prominent writers and thinkers ultimately rejected the theological mentality.

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